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Program to use therapy dogs to aid domestic violence victims

An initiative by Cyndy Caravelis, associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at Western Carolina University, will include a pilot program to use a therapy dog to aid domestic violence victims and their families in Jackson County. 

Caravelis’ German shepherd Atlas will escort victims and family members into court procedures and stay with children while parents receive counseling and legal services. The dog also will serve as an ambassador for programs and outreach, putting a friendly face - and wagging tail - to destigmatize attitudes about seeking help in domestic violence situations. 

“Therapy dogs can assist in serving as a distraction and, in many cases, a bright spot during challenging times. Once the therapy dog program is established, we hope to have a number of dog and handler volunteer teams to support other local agencies that work with children,” said Caravelis. “Atlas is currently in training, sponsored by the Center for Domestic Peace with a grant from the Great Smokies Health Foundation, and will soon be a certified pet therapy animal.” 

Caravelis has an extensive career background in law enforcement involving sexual offenders, domestic abuse cases and endangered and missing persons. She serves on the board of directors of the Center for Domestic Peace, the local domestic violence agency, and plans to involve WCU criminology and criminal justice students, as well as other majors, in the project. 

“With his large stature and sweet disposition, I thought Atlas would be a perfect dog for the pilot program,” Caravelis said. “All therapy dogs need to meet a certain standard of temperament and obedience, but what sets a domestic violence therapy dog apart from, say a therapy dog who visits nursing homes or hospitals, is that a courthouse setting has its own set of policies and procedures, which includes passing through security, sitting with the clients while waiting for their turn, and staying calm and responsive to their handler in potentially tense environments.  

“Additionally, Atlas will serve as an escort of sorts to give a sense of comfort and security to clients who feel unsafe. For example, some clients may not feel that they need a therapy dog in the courtroom per se but may request that we meet them to walk them from their vehicle into the courthouse. Atlas, at 90 pounds, is especially well-suited for this role.” 

After bringing up the idea for the pilot program to the Center for Domestic Peace board, Caravelis received full support, as well as encouragement from other agencies that work with vulnerable children. 

The Center for Domestic Peace, based in Sylva, is a recognized community partner with WCU’s Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning, and university students can volunteer for the project. After completing the 20-hour victim advocate training, students will be able to work directly with clients, assisting with client intake, sharing crisis intervention resources, learning about best client practices, including alternative support therapies such as therapy animals, and serving in the role of a court advocate by accompanying clients to court.  

“If the client indicates that they would benefit from the presence of a therapy dog, student volunteers will be able to accompany Atlas and me both at the Center for Domestic Peace office and to court,” Caravelis said. 

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